By S Ramadorai
A billion people—15% of the world’s population—experience some form of disability, and the prevalence in developing countries is higher than in developed ones. Around a fifth of the estimated global total—~110 million to 190 million people—have some significant incapacities to lead a normal life. Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as lower education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.
A society is judged by how effectively it deals with the needs of three groups within the population: those in the dawn of life, the young ones; those in the twilight of life, the elderly ones; and those who are in their shadows of life, the disabled. Among these, the disabled suffer the most because the infrastructure and ecosystem required to aid them are lacking.
As per the NSSO’s report on disability 2019, about 2.2% of the Indian population have some form of physical or mental disability. Until the 2011 Census, the questionnaire addressed about seven kinds of disabilities. This was expanded to 21 when the Rights of People with Disabilities Act was introduced in 2016.
According to the UN, out of the one billion population of persons with disabilities, 80% live in developing countries. One in every five women is likely to experience some form of disability in her life, while one in every ten children are known to have a form of disability. However, in today’s world, disability is not considered a state of inability, and more measures and facilities need to be put in place to give them equal opportunity. As rightly termed by our PM, persons with disabilities should be called as ‘People with Special Abilities’ or “Divyang”.
India’s development agenda draws little attention to the education of children with disabilities, and, in turn, hampers their overall development. To be able to empower them, our primary focus needs to be education. This lack of education subsequently affects their employment prospects, and thus, they are reduced to doing activities like weaving, candle-making or back-end operations. While several organisations across the world are now opening their doors to include them in mainstream roles, it is just not enough. We need to start at the nascent stage, in schools, by providing them with the correct infrastructure and syllabus to allow them to develop their career paths.
The new National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) has been hailed as a transformational educational reform. However, it needs to be seen how well it is implemented to bring about the inclusion of children with disabilities. Inclusive schooling is the best practice that promotes inclusive learning, involving teacher-training that helps school teachers identify the needs of children with disabilities and support them. This can be a successful model only if it includes the best teacher-training methodologies, provides a child-friendly curriculum and infrastructure, and includes parent-training as well. Unfortunately, these specially-abled children rarely progress beyond primary school and only about 9% complete secondary education. Around 45% of disabled people are illiterate and only 62.9% of disabled people between the ages of 3 and 35 have ever attended regular schools. The primary challenge is the lack of proper access to infrastructure. Almost 60% of the schools do not have any access-ramps and only 17% have accessible toilets. Although technology is a key focus of the NEP, only 59% of schools have access to electricity. Reading disability within NEP 2020 in isolation from the existing socio-political background would be a misconception; we need to take cognisance of the fact that disabled people do not belong to a separate society, but are very much a part of the larger population.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 stipulates that every government institution of higher education shall reserve not less than 5% seats for students with benchmark disabilities. But, in reality, the number is much lower. It does not apply to the private sector, and hence, the reach of differently-abled kids in terms of admission into private schools/colleges is a challenge. Differently-abled people are known to have sharp intellectual abilities and can be productive employees if they are placed in appropriate jobs with the right kind of support.
Skill development is another crucial area for inclusive growth. Access to good quality education for all, vocational training and workplace learning are fundamental principles of social cohesion and economic growth. Some groups may require targeted attention if they are to benefit from education, training, and employment opportunities. This is particularly the case for persons with disabilities and people in rural communities. The attractiveness of vocational education and training is enhanced when combined with entrepreneurship-training and when public policy encourages the utilisation of the higher skills of persons with disabilities in the business fraternity.
We need to understand that persons with disabilities can perform almost any job, in an enabling environment, given the right support services. Studies have revealed that globally, persons with disabilities have lower employment rates than persons without disabilities, and the few who are employed, work fewer hours and in lower-paid or lower-skilled positions. Vocational training for persons with disabilities must complement general education. Vocational education for children with disabilities has become a necessity to enable them to become productive and independent. In India, skill training for PwDs is provided by the Skill Council for Persons with Disability (SCPwD) in collaboration with the National Skill Development Council (NSDC) with an aim to fulfil the mission of mainstreaming PwD through skill training, to enable them to earn a livelihood and lead a life of dignity in the mainstream and contribute to the growth of the economy. Skills-training is imparted at accredited training centres through trained and certified trainers. These trainers are trained on NSDC-approved job roles aligned for a specific disability and are also certified on disability orientation and sensitisation.
People without disabilities assume that disabled individuals are helpless, inadequate, and completely ineffective. As a result, they are either patronising or uncomfortable around challenged individuals. Many people who suffer from learning shortcomings are technically labelled disabled, but most perform very well in their chosen occupations. Some famous personalities include dancer Sudha Chandran, singer Ravindra Jain, IAS topper Ira Singhal, badminton champion Girish Sharma, to name a few.
Titan Industries is a torch-bearer for the employment of people with physical and mental challenges. In 2005, 4% of Titan’s employees were recorded to have some form of disability. The company set out not just to employ them but also to integrate them completely into the organisation. Technology giant IBM also has a “Human Ability and Accessibility Center” in India. The main purpose of the initiative is to modify and use technology to make the workplace more manageable for differently-abled employees. Today, several companies like IBM and TCS are making this possible as these initiatives seek to collaborate with government agencies on accessibility-related policy and standards as well.
It is said that the World Paralympic Games have seen better sportsmanship and better competition than the Olympics. According to the Himalayan Database, 29 people with disabilities have attempted to climb the Mount Everest, and 15 have even reached the summit. Who says a disability is a dampener!
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development clearly states that disability cannot be a reason or criteria for lack of access to development programming and the realisation of human rights. The SDG framework includes seven targets, which explicitly refer to persons with disabilities, and six further targets on persons in vulnerable situations, which include persons with disabilities. Though there have been improvements in our country over the last few years, disabled people and their families confront isolation and exclusion and remain on the fringes of society. Multiple barriers hinder their amalgamation with the mainstream.
The government should focus on their challenges and have more policies for their benefit in the Budget this year. The CSR spends of the companies is also expected to rise for the benefit of the disabled.
To make India better and positive for the largest minority, we ought to encourage mediation, dialogues and action measures required to boost equal opportunities. The challenge is to deliver for them not just life, but the quality of life, and to identify and provide them with their citizenship rights in a real sense by offering opportunities for full social inclusion.
“Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone”.—Martina Navratilova
The author is Former CEO & MD of TCS, and former chairman, Skill Development Agency. Views are personal